The New York Times continues its coverage of the Metropolitan Museum’s leadership transition and struggle to shore up its position as New York’s pre-eminent cultural institution—as it tries to attract donors among the world’s wealthiest persons who have turned toward Modern and Contemporary art away from other collecting categories—by framing an interesting news story in the oddest way.
The news in the story is that the Met approached—and was turned down by—David Koch and Steven Schwarzmann to donate $300m to kickstart the languishing plans to rebuild the museum’s Contemporary art wing.
Oddly, though, the Times makes the story a question of whether Leonard Lauder will go through with his gift of Cubist art if the museum cannot build a new home for the collection:
Is Mr. Lauder’s gift, valued at more than $1 billion four years ago, now at risk? If the Met takes too long to resurrect the project or ultimately scales it back, might Mr. Lauder take his collection elsewhere?
Worry not, the story tells us. Lauder will indeed give the art to the Met. Did anyone ever doubt it? Although the story tries to raise the idea that Lauder could give the art to other institutions, the collection was assembled for the purpose of enhancing Lauder’s reputation as a gift to the Met. It is silly of the Times to pretend otherwise.
It’s also silly of the Times to value the collection at $1bn. That’s simply not true. Lauder did not spend $1bn assembling the collection. It is being donated to a museum where it will not be sold. So the collection has no market value any longer. Lauder’s accountants may be working with $1bn to offset his taxes in other areas.
The Times’s long-standing skepticism about the art market isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does act as a tonic to the market fixation on these notional values. Why the Times abandons that market skepticism precisely when it is most appropriate—Lauder’s gift is meant to be a measure of his art historical acumen and cultural beneficence, what’s a $1bn to the cosmetics magnate, after all?—is one mystery of the story.
The mystery is what’s happening at the Met. The story doesn’t tell us whether the approach to Koch and Schwarzmann was a thought out strategy or a desperate move to reclaim lost momentum. The Times doesn’t say whether the approach was made by the museum’s new president, Daniel Weiss, or the board. Either way, the story suggests the museum is still far from setting itself back on track.